College football spring games: Intriguing newcomers, position battles

Apr 19, 2024, 08:00 AM ET

Another full Saturday of spring game action is upon us and there’s no shortage of intriguing storylines to monitor.

New coach Sherrone Moore leads defending champion Michigan, but who will be under center for the Wolverines this fall? The post-Caleb Williams era gets underway at USC, while Oklahoma and Texas get ready for life in the SEC.

What are the key position battles, potential breakout players and must-see newcomers from Saturdays 24 games? Let’s break it down.

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Most intriguing newcomer: Kadarius Calloway’s circuitous path to Berkeley began as one of the nation’s top safety recruits in 2021, when he signed with Alabama only to unenroll before his freshman year and begin his career as a running back at East Mississippi Community College, instead. After two years, he moved on to Old Dominion, where he rushed 88 times for 623 yards last season. His 7.1 yards per carry were enough to warrant interest from bigger programs and now he’ll finish his career on the West Coast playing in the ACC. The Bears have a star running back in Jaydn Ott, but there is space on the depth chart for Calloway to earn a meaningful role. — Kyle Bonagura

Position battle to watch: Duke thinks it has three serviceable quarterbacks, and two — Texas transfer Maalik Murphy and last year’s late-season starter Grayson Loftis — will see plenty of work in the spring, um, game? Yeah, that’s the problem. Duke is so thin on the O-line as spring winds to a close that it won’t hold a traditional scrimmage, which certainly makes the job of evaluating the most important position on the field a little tougher. But as new head coach Manny Diaz said, quarterback might be the one area where the Blue Devils feel particularly comfortable.

Murphy has been a quick study since arriving from Austin, and Loftis battled through some tough times late last year and still produced some memorable performances. The third member of the cast, Henry Belin, is still recovering from an injury, but he could work his way into the mix this summer. Diaz noted that when Duke’s been good, it’s almost always been because it had exceptional quarterback play. He’s got the pieces for 2024, if only he can find enough big guys to stand in front of them. — David Hale

Most intriguing newcomer: You know where we’re going with this. It’s quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who transferred to the Seminoles from Oregon State, after starting his career at Clemson. Florida State lost the bulk of its offensive production from last season, with QB Jordan Travis, RB Trey Benson and WRs Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman all moving on. But it all starts with the signal-caller, where Uiagalelei must replace Travis and everything he did for the offense.

Uiagalelei said he feels comfortable in the scheme, and though he’s capable of running, don’t expect him to run as much as Travis did. He’s gotten better and better as the spring has progressed, and has some talent at receiver from transfer Malik Benson, veteran Kentron Poitier and speedsters Ja’Khi Douglas and Hykeem Williams that he’s building chemistry with. He may end up getting more reps than usual in the spring game, as coach Mike Norvell said this week that backups Brock Glenn and Luke Kromenhoek will not play due to minor injuries. That leaves Uiagalelei and early enrollee freshman Trever Jackson as the top two quarterbacks available. — Andrea Adelson

Position battle to watch: During last season’s run to the ACC title game, Louisville’s depth at wide receiver was consistently challenged. After Jamari Thrash (63 catches, 858 yards), another consistent threat never quite developed, and when Thrash battled injuries late, it took a toll on the Cards’ offense. Entering 2024, the problem may be even deeper, with Thrash representing just a chunk of the 69% of Louisville’s receiving yardage from last season now gone from the roster.

The top offseason acquisition — Alabama transfer Ja’Corey Brooks, is dealing with an injury, leaving Chris Bell, Caullin Lacy, Jadon Thompson, Jimmy Calloway and others to handle the bulk of the reps. Coach Jeff Brohm looks to dive into the transfer portal looking for some help at the position, but a strong finish from some of the holdovers from 2023 would at least make for a less pressure-packed summer as Brohm looks for more downfield targets. — Adelson

Most intriguing newcomer: How about two intriguing newcomers? Left tackle Howard Sampson (6-8, 325) transferred from North Texas, where he previously worked with new Heels O-line coach Randy Clements, and center Austin Blaske (6-5, 310) arrives from Georgia. They’ve helped remake UNC’s front. Indeed, Mack Brown joked that his wife made a point to tell him that the unit, “looks a lot better getting off the bus.” That’s translated to a far more consistent performance for a unit that is replacing four starters, but it’s OC Chip Lindsey who thinks it could be better than last year’s group.

Sampson and Blaske will be the headlining acts on the O-line in the spring game, but UNC also has two more potential starters — Jakiah Leftwich from Georgia Tech and Zach Greenberg from Muhlenberg — arriving this summer. If the line proves to be a serious strength, as Lindsey expects, the pressure on Max Johnson or Conner Harrell to replace star quarterback Drake Maye gets a lot easier to manage. — Hale

Position battle to watch: As Stanford’s primary quarterback last year, Ashton Daniels showed signs of promise. He finished the year with 2,247 yards passing and had a pair of 350+ yard passing performances, but his inconsistency was one of several issues that plagued the Cardinal in Troy Taylor’s first season as head coach. Daniels certainly is the favorite to win the job to begin the 2024 season, but this is by no means his job. Enter Elijah Brown, California’s Mr. Football in 2023. The Mater Dei High product arrived at Stanford in January as ESPN’s No. 11-ranked pocket passer in the country. Stanford hasn’t traditionally let its true freshman quarterbacks play right away, but perhaps there is a new mindset with Taylor calling the shots. — Bonagura

Most intriguing newcomer: Kyle McCord may have shocked some when he announced he was transferring from Ohio State to Syracuse, but considering all his connections to the coaching staff, the move made sense. Now he has a chance to try to elevate a Syracuse program that has been searching for consistency year in and year out. McCord is from New Jersey and knew coach Fran Brown going back to his prep days. He also played youth football with the son of offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon. McCord says he has complete comfort in the offense Nixon is bringing from the NFL, because it uses similar concepts that he ran under his former coach at Ohio State, Ryan Day. That has helped ease the learning curve somewhat.

McCord says he has spent a lot of time getting to know his new receiver group, pointing out how Jackson Meeks and Trebor Pena have been coming along. This is all without receiver/tight end Oronde Gadsden II, who remains limited with a foot injury, but is expected to be full go by the time fall camp rolls around. — Adelson

Position battle to watch: Quarterbacks Tony Muskett and Anthony Colandrea have split first-team reps this spring, though coaches have cautioned they did not want either player to feel like they were in the heat of competition. Instead, the focus was on getting better with each practice.

Both played a season ago. Muskett started the season but dealt with multiple injuries over the course of the year to his shoulder and ankle. With Muskett out, Colandrea got the opportunity to play as a true freshman and made some wow plays at times. At others, he made freshman mistakes, finishing the season with 13 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Expect them to split the reps evenly again in the spring game, but do not expect any decisions on a starter until the fall. — Adelson

Position battle to watch: Quarterback. Wake Forest brought in transfer Hank Bachmeier (now at his third stop) to compete for the starting job with Michael Kern this spring. Unfortunately for Kern, he has missed most of spring camp with a hand injury. That has left Bachmeier and freshman Jeremy Hecklinski to get the bulk of the reps.

Bachmeier has shown his veteran presence and picked up the offense quickly, while Kern has been able to attend all the practices and help him pick up all the nuisances of the offense. Kern is expected back by midsummer, and the competition will continue into fall camp. Don’t expect a starter to be named any time soon. One more position to watch: running back. Demond Claiborne is getting all the first-team reps and will be a focal point of the offense behind a veteran offensive line. — Adelson

Michigan quarterback Jack Tuttle looks to grab the starting quarterback position with the reigning national champions. Steven King/Icon Sportswire

Position battle to watch: The reigning national champions have an ongoing five-way quarterback competition to replace J.J. McCarthy, who could be a top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Jack Tuttle, who in February was approved for a seventh college season, is the elder statesman of the group. Tuttle started five games at Indiana before transferring to Michigan last year. He is being pushed by senior Davis Warren, juniors Alex Orji and Jayden Denegal and true freshman Jadyn Davis, who was the No. 4-ranked dual-threat QB recruit in the country before enrolling early. A big performance in Michigan’s spring game could give any of these five quarterbacks an edge in the competition heading into the summer. — Jake Trotter

Most intriguing newcomer: Running back Jo’Quavious “Woody” Marks arrives at USC from Mississippi State after four steady (albeit not exactly standout) seasons in the SEC. Both he and USC are hoping this partnership can be mutually beneficial after Marks totaled 3,339 all-purpose yards and 27 touchdowns for the Bulldogs across four years.

Much like how the additions of Travis Dye and MarShawn Lloyd in previous years via the transfer portal gave the Trojans a deeper veteran backfield presence while boosting the profiles of Dye and Lloyd, Marks has shown the potential to fit well into that role this spring. With a new quarterback under center and a wide receivers room that’s full of talent but also inexperience, running back will be a crucial position in determining how effective Lincoln Riley’s offense is this upcoming season with Caleb Williams no longer there. — Paolo Uggetti

Most intriguing newcomer: Offensive tackle J.C. Davis. Illinois needed to address its offensive line after the 2023 season and picked up several transfers in the winter portal, including Davis, a first-team All-Mountain West selection at New Mexico last season. A one-time junior-college transfer, Davis started two seasons at left tackle for the Lobos. He can be a dominant run-blocker for an Illinois offense trying to reestablish its ground game, which slipped to 96th nationally last fall.

The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Davis will help protect quarterback Luke Altmyer, as Illinois finished 116th nationally in sacks allowed per game in 2023. Coach Bret Bielema’s best teams — at Wisconsin, Arkansas and Illinois — have been built at the line of scrimmage, and Davis will have a significant role in a revamped offensive front trying to reestablish itself after some slippage. — Adam Rittenberg

Position battle to watch: Iowa needs the wide receiver position to contribute much more under new offensive coordinator Tim Lester. Although the receivers haven’t been the only problem during the offense’s historically bad two-year stretch, it didn’t provide much to change the unit’s trajectory. Iowa returns only two receivers, Kaleb Brown and Seth Anderson, who caught passes last season, as they combined for 33 receptions and 365 yards. Who else has emerged this spring, especially with starting quarterback Cade McNamara still recovering from his knee injury? Although Iowa gets a big boost with tight end Luke Lachey’s return, Lester and the staff need to assess whether they have enough at receiver coming out of the spring, and how aggressive they should be in the spring transfer cycle. — Rittenberg

Breakout player: Quarterback Aidan Chiles. New MSU coach Jonathan Smith and his staff added several key transfers during their first few weeks on the job, but none more significant than Chiles. The sophomore from California immediately put himself on the radar for Smith at Oregon State after enrolling early in 2023.

Chiles was efficient in limited action last season, completing 24 of 35 passes for 309 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He added three rushing touchdowns for the Beavers and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Chiles has the size and skill set to provide an immediate boost for a Spartans passing game that slipped to 96th nationally in yards per game and to 111th in efficiency last season. He understands the system Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren want to run, and the added stress placed on the quarterback spot. — Rittenberg

Breakout player: Running back Caleb Komolafe. Wildcats coach David Braun recognizes the team needs more offensive thrust to compete in the new Big Ten. The team is still looking to add offensive line depth and possibly a quarterback in the spring portal, but running back projects well with Cam Porter, Joseph Himon and Komolafe, who sources say might have the highest ceiling of the three.

Komolafe appeared in only three games in 2023, recording a receiving touchdown and two carries, but his role is set to increase under new offensive coordinator Zach Lujan, who wants to use the width of the field to get the team’s top playmakers in space. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Komolafe has a size-speed combination Northwestern likes. — Rittenberg

Returning Baylor quarterback Sawyer Robertson started four times last season and looks to gain the starting quarterback position. Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Position battle to watch: Dave Aranda made a switch at offensive coordinator, replacing Jeff Grimes and his NFL-style offense with Air Raid stalwart Jake Spavital, which brings a new competition at quarterback. Sawyer Robertson played his freshman year for Mike Leach in the same system at Mississippi State before transferring to Baylor, where he played in six games with four starts last year, throwing for 864 yards and four TDs with two interceptions. Robertson is challenged by Toledo transfer Dequann Finn, who has 32 career starts and led the Rockets to an 11-2 season and a spot in the MAC title game, being named conference MVP after throwing for 2,657 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushing for 563. — Dave Wilson

Breakout player: 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman wide receiver Beni Ngoyi is a Lincoln, Nebraska, native who picked Iowa State over offers from Nebraska and Washington. He’s got the potential to be a big-play target for QB Rocco Becht, last year’s Big 12 offensive freshman of the year, alongside returning WRs Jaylin Noel (66 catches, 820 yards and 7 TDs in 2023) and Jayden Higgins (52-983-6).

Ngoyi showed his speed with a 46-yard catch from Becht in last year’s Liberty Bowl, which he played in while preserving his redshirt, and coach Matt Campbell has praised his performance this spring. — Wilson

Most intriguing newcomer: The Red Raiders and coordinator Zach Kittley like to throw the ball around, and Washington State transfer Josh Kelly (who previously spent three years at Fresno State) figures to be on the receiving end of plenty of those passes. He caught 61 passes for 923 yards and eight touchdowns last year in Pullman and has played in 38 games with 148 career catches. In two of WSU’s biggest games, he had eight catches for 159 yards and three TDs against Oregon State, and eight grabs for 106 yards and a TD in the Apple Cup loss to Washington. In one final season, he could be one of the top WRs in the Big 12. — Wilson

Position battle to watch: Gevani McCoy, Ben Gulbranson and Gabarri Johnson make up a unique quarterback battle as Oregon State navigates a period of uncertainty following the collapse of the Pac-12.First there’s Gulbranson, who went 7-1 in eight starts for the Beavers in 2022 before being replaced by D.J. Uiagalelei last season. Then there’s McCoy, who had a brilliant two-year run at FCS Idaho, where he was the Jerry Rice Award winner in 2022 (best freshman in FCS) and was a Walter Payton Award finalist last year and a first-team All-Big Sky selection. Finally, there’s Johnson, ESPN’s No. 7 ranked quarterback in the Class of 2023, who spent his freshman year at Missouri before opting to return to the Pacific Northwest. — Bonagura

Most intriguing newcomer: With Will Rogers gone, it appears that Baylor transfer, Blake Shapen, is going to be the guy in Starkville, and he immediately becomes its most intriguing newcomer. In eight games last year, Shapen completed a hair under 62% of his passes for 2,188 yards, 13 touchdowns, and three interceptions. He is going to be important as new head coach Jeff Lebby makes his mark in his first year as a head coach. Back in December, Lebby said, “When I watch him, I think, ‘That’s our kind of guy.'” If Lebby is that confident in Shapen, it certainly should hold weight given his track record of potent offenses at UCF, Ole Miss, and most recently Oklahoma. — Harry Lyles Jr.

Purdue transfer wide receiver Deion Burks looks to be Jackson Arnold’s main pass-catcher this upcoming season. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

Most intriguing newcomer: The Sooners are losing their leading receiver from a year ago, Drake Stoops, but first-year starting quarterback Jackson Arnold has liked what he’s seen this spring from his pass-catchers and thinks OU will be more explosive throwing the football. One of the reasons why is the addition of Purdue transfer Deion Burks, who’s shown versatility and the ability to get open and make big plays. Burks caught 47 passes for 629 yards and seven touchdowns last season at Purdue and has experience playing both outside and in the slot. Arnold has already formed a good rapport on the field with Burks, who has great speed and could also factor in the return game on special teams. The addition of Burks and continued development of returnee Jayden Gibson, who’s also had a big spring, is good news for an OU passing game that will have a new offensive coordinator and new starting quarterback in 2024. — Chris Low

Position battle to watch: LaNorris Sellers and the quarterbacks will be the thing to keep your eye on in Columbia this weekend. With Spencer Rattler gone to the NFL, the Gamecocks are looking to replace him, and Sellers is the favorite. He was the 293rd ranked player in the ESPN 300 for 2023 out of Florence, South Carolina. He appeared in three games last season, completed all four of the passes he threw for 86 yards and two touchdowns, along with 51 yards on the ground and one touchdown.

Elsewhere at the position, Luke Doty has been focusing on working as a wide receiver, and the Gamecocks added Robby Ashford from Auburn, and Davis Beville from Oklahoma in the portal. South Carolina also has Dante Reno, a four-star out of Cheshire, Connecticut. But it appears this is Sellers’ job to lose. — Lyles

Breakout player: As one of the top true freshmen in the country last season, linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. will hardly be a surprise to anyone in 2024. But he has everything it takes to go from one of the top freshmen to one of the top players, period, in college football in his second season with the Longhorns. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound Hill started in six games last season and didn’t waste any time showing off his talent. He had two sacks in the Week 2 victory at Alabama and finished with five sacks on the season. Hill has been referred to as a “chess piece” because he can be effective in so many different spots. He’s spent most of his time in the middle this spring while taking over for two-time All-Big 12 selection Jaylan Ford, but Hill can chase the ball sideline-to-sideline with the best of them and also rush the passer. In short, he’s an impact player wherever he lines up and a player that will be a tone-setter for Texas’ defense this season. — Low

Most intriguing newcomer: Several of Texas A&M’s top performers on defense from a year ago are gone, either to the transfer portal or NFL draft. So going out and getting a proven edge rusher in the portal the caliber of Nic Scourton was critical for first-year coach Mike Elko.

Scourton finished with 10 sacks last season at Purdue to lead the Big Ten and was recently rated as the No. 2 returning edge rusher for the 2024 season by Pro Football Focus. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Scourton plays with power and is not just a pass-rusher either. He’s equally stout against the run. Scourton played his high school football in nearby Bryan, Texas, but the Aggies didn’t offer. Since then, he’s transformed his body and added more than 50 pounds. Elko, who was Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator at the time, is eager to see what this version of Scourton can do in the SEC. The Aggies lost more than half of their 42 sacks from last season. Scourton, paired with returning senior defensive lineman Shemar Turner, should help fill that void. — Low

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